Text size

A famous Basque singer, Paco Ibanez, sang the Basque melody on which "Jerusalem of Gold" is based, at a performance in Israel in 1962. It is possible that Naomi Shemer heard it then.

Ibanez said on Thursday that he was saddened to hear of Shemer's guilt feelings over basing the song on the Basque folk melody and not admitting it. "It is a shame. She had no reason to feel guilty," he said Thursday. "True, I think she heard the song from me, but that's life and that's how I see it. It wasn't even a secret. I spoke to friends about it and mentioned it in conversations with people. I didn't speak to Naomi Shemer since then because I didn't see her again, and it didn't really matter to me. If I had seen her, I certainly would have mentioned it, but of course, without anger."

Ibanez said his mother would sing the lullaby to him when he was little and sat in her lap. He recorded the song, which is based on a folk tune, in his volume "Songs I Heard from My Mother."

Ibanez said he first heard Shemer's song in the summer of 1967, shortly after it was written. He immediately recognized it as his song, "Joseph's hair."

"I didn't consider this plagiarism but rather felt a lot of empathy for Shemer. Was I angry? Not at all. On the contrary, I was glad it helped in some way."

The resemblance of "Jerusalem of Gold" to the Basque lullaby was mentioned to Shemer many times but she always denied she had lifted the tune. In an interview with Yedioth Aharonoth in April 2000, Shemer was asked point-blank about it. "The songs don't sound the same at all," she said. "The resemblance is really very slight. This kind of thing happens every week. Somewhere or other, something from another song sticks to us just as dust sticks onto clothes."

But while the melodies of both songs are very similar, the words are like chalk and cheese. Ibanez's song tells of a wicked Basque man who denies his paternity in the case of an unwed mother. Shemer's song talks of a city "captured by a dream and with a wall for a heart."

Composer Gil Aldema, to whom Shemer sent a letter of confession two weeks before her death, said Thursday: "Now in retrospect, I understand that was her last testament. She kept the thing secret for a very long time, and I believe she felt relief after writing the letter. She apparently wanted to clean the slate before her death."

Aldema, 77, recalled on Thursday that Shemer's letter had arrived at his Givatayim home a few days before Shemer's death. "Naomi could no longer write. She was very ill and asked her daughter-in-law to type the letter for her. She probably sent me the letter because I was the one who suggested that she write a song about Jerusalem for the Song Festival in 1967, which I produced."

Aldema continued: "At first, Shemer could not get it right and was angry that she had been told to write a song about Jerusalem; but two weeks later, she called me and read me `Jerusalem of Gold.' It had only two verses at that point. She insisted that Shuli Natan sing the song. I remember that when Shuli sang the song at the festival, there was first utter silence in the hall and then the audience broke into thunderous applause. It was a really amazing feeling.

"Three weeks later," Aldema said, "the Six-Day War broke out, and Naomi told me how a group of soldiers, among those who liberated Jerusalem, sang the song with her. It had new significance after that war. She was very attached to the song and apparently became even more attached to it as the years went by."

After Shemer's death, Aldema was in a quandary over whether or not to publish the letter. "We thought of reading it at the end of the shiva (mourning period) but felt it was too early," he recalled. "We decided to let some time pass. I know Naomi did not object to publishing the letter. She would have wanted it."

Shemer's family Thursday published a statement with the full text of the letter. They said: "We love Gil [Aldema] and welcome his decision to publish the letter. It was mother's wish also... We feel the letter should be published and read in full so that it can be stressed that the slight resemblance between the two melodies, that so tormented mother, was made unwittingly."

Shemer's friends expressed relief that the affair had been published in Haaretz. Song-writer Dan Almagor, 75, said: "We have been keeping this secret since Naomi's death." Almagor, Natan and a small handful of Shemer's friends had known about the letter. "Gil showed me the letter immediately after she died, and I was very moved," Almagor said. "We knew for years she had been influenced by the Basque melody and could never understand why she denied this."

Almagor said he had been with Shemer and a group of other musicians at Ibanez's performance in a Jaffa club in the early 1960s. "[The singer] Benny Amdursky reminded her of this for years on end," he said.

Natan said on Thursday she had heard the song was based on the Basque melody. "It apparently bothered Naomi for years," she said. "I don't know why. There is nothing wrong in using a small part of the Basque melody for the song. [The national anthem] "Hatikvah" is also based partly on a Romanian melody."

Almagor added: "If she had told the truth, it would not have detracted from her greatness. The opposite is true."